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Radio Wars: Will Production Halt Force Army To Play Radio Shell Game?

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

Army Maj. Gen. Hughes (left) and Lt. Gen. Walker (right) discuss the services' network upgrade plans.

Army Maj. Gen. Hughes (left) and Lt. Gen. Walker (right) discuss the services’ network upgrade plans.

[UPDATED with comments from Army generals] WASHINGTON: In the latest battle over Army radios, defense industry giant General Dynamics is beating the war drums once again. If the Pentagon doesn’t issue a new contract for backpack-sized “Manpack” radios soon, GD warns, they and co-supplier Rockwell Collins will complete the current lot by the year’s end — a press release this morning said they’ve completed 2,300 of the 3,826 on contract — and then have to stop production. Such a halt could jeopardize the delivery of the latest digital communications to combat soldiers, the head of GD’s radio business told me. (Troops currently in Afghanistan are using the somewhat less capable Harris PRC-117G radio).

When I asked Army officers and officials about the potential problem, they insisted the problem was not as urgent. The expedients they offered as backup plans, however, amounted to rationing out new radios and other network technology upgrades, giving more to some units and less to others. That’s not what the service wants to do: It’s what it has to do as budgets tighten.

“The requirement doesn’t change; what we can afford did change,” said Lt. Gen. Kevin Walker, deputy commander at the Army Training and Doctrine Command, in a press conference today at the annual conference of the Association of the US Army. Some units will get the entire “capability set” of communications equipment, but some will only get a subset, he acknowledged, and “that is because of our dollar constraints.”

General Dynamics is definitely pushing hard for its share of a shrinking budget. In what one skeptic called a “desperation move,” the company has mustered 112 of its suppliers from 24 states — all small businesses — and 65 members of Congress to write the Pentagon insisting that production must continue.

“It’s like sending people into the field without body armor,” said Chris Marzilli, president of General Dynamics C4 Systems (command, control, communications, and computers) in an exclusive interview with BreakingDefense last night. Digital radios that connect soldiers on foot to the unit-wide tactical networks can provide life-or-death advantages by coordinating combat operations or simply keeping different units from shooting one another by accident.

“That resonates with the delegations [in Congress], but frankly they’re also very worried about the industrial base in their home states,” Marzilli told me. “A couple of years of a break in production for no real strong reason, it’s a problem back home for them.”

Of course, it’s an even bigger problem for General Dynamics, which has used such pressure tactics before. Its greatest success was with the massive M1 Abrams, where it convinced Congress to overrule the Army and keep the M1 in production rather than idle the tank factory in Lima, Ohio. Lima, however, is the only place left in the United States that can build main battle tanks and one of just two that build tracked fighting vehicles of any kind (the other being BAE’s factory in York, Pennsylvania). There are plenty of places — and plenty of sharp-elbowed competitors — that make high-tech radios.

General Dynamics leaned hard on Congress last year in what critics called an effort to lock out potential competitors for Army radio contracts. This year, the only way to keep production going uninterrupted is to grant another “low-rate initial production” contract to GD and Rockwell, because an all-comers competition for a full-rate production contract would take 18 to 24 months, by Marzilli’s estimate — and that’s  assuming no more government shutdowns, continuing resolutions, or other budgetary disasters.

“We’re prepared to participate in a full and open competition” for the over 60,000 radios the Army still wants to buy, Marzilli told me, but why not issue another LRIP contract as a stopgap to keep production going in the meantime? “You can do both,” he said.

There is “absolutely” going to be some gap between the end of the current low-rate initial production contract and the beginning of full-rate production, acknowledged Brig. Gen. Daniel Hughes. (Hughes oversees radio procurement in his capacity as the Army’s Program Executive Officer for Command, Control, and Communications – Technical, PEO-C3T) . But that’s a manageable problem, Hughes assured me after the formal press conference, where he spoke alongside Lt. Gen. Walker.

Especially as it downsizes and reorganizes its brigades, the Army is reevaluating how many radios it needs and when it needs to buy them to equip particular brigades before they have to deploy. The Army’s working now to determine “how many do we need in ’14,’15, ’16,” Hughes told me. “How much do I need until I get to the full-rate production decision where I have all the competitors in?… It could be 100 radios, it could be 2,000, [but] if there’s a gap we need to fill, we’ll buy the right radios to fill the gap.”

That does not necessarily mean the Army will buy any more Manpack radios from General Dynamics and Rockwell Collins. It doesn’t even mean buying a near-equivalent like the Harris PRC-117G. “I have multiple ways to address this: The Manpack is just one of them,” said Col. Mark Elliott, who works on communications networks for the Army’s Pentagon headquarters staff. (His jawbreaking full title is director of “LandWarNet Misson Command” in staff section G-3/-5/-7). For example, he told me after the press conference, a soldier can plug his personal “Rifleman Radio” into systems called Sidehat and Sidewinder that make it equivalent to the Manpack — almost.

“It’s less capability,” Hughes chimed in. “[For example], you get a little less range. But, again, we’re determining every single aspect of what we can afford.”

“The strategy is still solidifying,” said Paul Mehney, Brig. Gen. Hughes’s director of operations. Instead of purchasing new radios, he said, “we may just move radios around.”

“That’s a big ‘may,'” Mehney emphasized. He and Hughes work on the acquisition side of the Army. It’s the Army’s Pentagon headquarters staff — where Col. Elliott works — and Training and Doctrine Command — Lt. Gen. Walker’s outfit — that are studying what units need what radios of what types. And the final decision on what to buy lies outside the Army, with the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Frank Kendall.

But it’s already the official plan for the next package of upgraded equipment — what’s called “Capability Set 14” because it starts delivery next year — that not every brigade is getting the full kit. Only three brigades (one in fiscal year 2014 and two in 2015) will get both new radios for foot troops and the latest iteration of the higher-level command-and-control network, a General Dynamics product known as WIN-T Increment 2 (Warfighter Information Network – Tactical). Six other brigades will get the radios but not WIN-T. Conversely, seven or eight brigades will get WIN-T but not the radios.

If production of the Manpack radio does indeed lapse, Mehney said, the Army may have to provide different brigades with different numbers of radios of various kinds, depending on which needs what most for its current mission. A brigade scheduled to break up into small advisor teams as part of a “regionally aligned force” doing peacetime partnerships with foreign nations, for example, may need more radios sized for foot soldiers than a brigade mounted in fast-moving Stryker transports, for which vehicle-based satellite communications systems may be more important. (Mehney emphasized these are only notional examples).

Tailoring for specific missions is a viable option, but won’t it be harder for brigades to train for the full range of military scenarios — a major worry of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno — if they don’t have their full set of communications gear? “It’s not ideal, but it’s not a show stopper,” Mehney told me.

Doesn’t issuing the full kit only to some units and a lesser subset to others — effectively robbing Peter to pay Paul — return to the long-abandoned system of “tiered readiness“? Mehney looked uncomfortable for a moment, then said only: “To an extent.”

Mehney made clear, however, that the Army did not consider its tactical communications upgrades dependent on any one contract or company. “We’re not going to award [one contract] and stop,” he said. “This is going to be a continuous evaluation and a continuous infusion of the latest from industry,” informed both by soldier feedback from the field and industry offerings at the regular Network Integration Evaluations (NIEs).

“We’re going to maximize competition,” Mehney said.

“We want to get to competition on these radios as fast as possible,” agreed Mehney’s boss, Brig. Gen. Hughes. And that’s not compatible with doing one low-rate initial production contract after another (as comfortable as that might be for General Dynamics). “You want to get out of LRIPs. You want to get to a full rate production decision,” he said, “[so] I don’t have to go back on a regular basis to the Department and say ‘sir, can I have another LRIP?'”


Updated 8:15 pm with comment from Walker, Hughes, and Elliott.

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